Essentials of the Greek national holiday – an illustrated guide

25th March and 28th October are the two Greek national holidays which are marked with great ceremony. The first celebrates the start of the revolutionary war against the Ottoman Turks in 1821; the second, known as “OXI day”, marks the anniversary of Greece’s entry into WW II by saying “No” to Mussolini’s demand to march through Greek territory. It probably says a lot about our national psyche that we celebrate the start of wars rather than the end of them – something of the small nation syndrome perhaps, a big “don’t mess” to would-be invaders. If you are Greek-American you may have been treated to this surreal video marking the “OXI day” with world leaders praising Greek courage with remarkable lack of context and self-awareness. I thought it would be useful as a counterpoint to give some flavour of what a national holiday is like on the ground in Greece.

The central event of a Greek national holiday is the parade (παρέλαση: parélasi), typically a military parade and a school parade held on alternate days in Athens and Thessaloniki, and local school and veterans’ parades in smaller towns and neighbourhoods. But don’t imagine a sombre occasion like Remembrance Sunday or a jolly one like the Fourth of July. The Greek parélasi is more “Eastern Block” in inspiration, but tempered with quintessentially Greek indiscipline and je-m’en-foutisme. Here are some of the essential elements that one can expect to find at a typical parélasi:

Slutty schoolgirls and the guys behind the cameras who love them

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Nothing says “the future of our proud nation” like a gaggle of 14-17 year old jailbait in fanny pelmets and stripper shoes strutting down the local high street like the cast of Showgirls doing St Trinian’s. Greek schoolchildren don’t normally wear uniforms, so this is the only chance they have to bend a dress code and they do it with a vengeance. This lovely compilation captures the enduring look, despite the uncharacteristically disciplinarian advice from one much-loved public figure. Please note, the girl bearing the flag will have achieved the top grades in the school.

Military hardware

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Tanks, aircraft, submarines, guys in cammo and wetsuits. Perhaps slightly tainted by the knowledge that it was purchased at a premium from the country’s creditors, through shadowy deals, is not always fully functional and is one of the few areas of state expenditure that has been barely touched by austerity. At the present juncture (March 2016) some might question the wisdom of having military aircraft “buzz” areas where some 50,000 refugees and migrants are sheltering, many of them traumatised children fleeing war. But hey, check out that loop-the-loop!

Women with hardware, aka. chicks with guns

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Two for one.

The human interest story

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The press always latches on to a heart-warming inspirational story, this year (October 2015) the small island school that showed its spirit by parading its two pupils for the benefit of the handful of inhabitants. It is now more common to feature in this category the children from immigrant communities that become flag-bearers by distinguishing themselves academically. This is a leap forward if one considers that only a few years ago an Albanian pupil resigned his right to carry the Greek flag at the parélasi “for the good of society” after his classmates and their parents occupied the school and halted lessons in protest.

The bogus controversy

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October 2015: Barriers at the parélasi. At the height of the anti austerity protests, parades were used as an occasion to confront and sometimes attack politicians on the officials’ podium, and as a result strict crowd control measures were introduced. The Syriza/ANEL government has made a symbolic statement of removing the security measures and creating a controversy over even the most rudimentary barriers. In the run-up to last March’s parade, there was a debate over whether or not to fly the fighter jets due to the cost; apparently this year the economy has improved enough for that to be a non-issue.

Politicians politicking

Ο υπουργός Παιδείας, Νίκος Φίλης (Α), ο δήμαρχος Αθηνών, Γιώργος Καμίνης (Κ) και ο βουλευτής του ΣΥΡΙΖΑ, Γιώργος Πάντζας (Δ), παρευρίσκονται στις εκδηλώσεις εορτασμού της 28ης Οκτωβρίου 1940, στο μνημείο του Αγνώστου Στρατιώτη, στην Αθήνα, Τετάρτη 28 Οκτωβρίου 2015. ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ/ ΑΠΕ-ΜΠΕ/ ΓΙΑΝΝΗΣ ΚΟΛΕΣΙΔΗΣ

October 2015: mainstream politicians used the occasion of the school parades to battle it out over the hot topic of VAT on private education. This is mild compared to 2011, when parades were invaded by teachers’ union protests (more subtle teacher activism is a constant feature – example: kindergarten pupils carrying “cute” protest signs like “NATO out of the Balkans” on a dove, during the Kosovo conflict). This year there were no big protests, but the anti-austerity spirit lives on in the regions, where the former soap-actor mayor of a town in central Greece used his speech to a local primary school to urge the pupils to honour the spirit of resistance by acting on the slogan “the lenders, the loan sharks and the mnimónia (creditor agreements) can go f**k themselves”.

Image credits linked in the accompanying text.

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Essentials of the Greek national holiday – an illustrated guide

Five steps to effective political communications

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If you want to put your views across to a minister or senior government official and you don’t have (a) a lobbying and entertainment budget, (b) a secret “commissions” slush fund, or (c) a relative in the ministry, you need to follow these simple guidelines to get your message across. At ¡Revolución! Communications your mission is our passion.

Commit to a brand identity. Many underestimate branding as a superficial exercise and an unnecessary expense. However, have a browse through a good branding handbook relevant to your business, and you will see that every revolutionary success story is underpinned by a great brand.

Be brief and to the point. Ministers and senior officials are busy people, and most of their correspondence ends up in a pile to be read by some junior flunky. No-one will read a turgid 40-page manifesto with your sophomoric musings on Marx or Bakunin unless you plant a bomb. At ¡Revolución! Communications we believe that non-violent forms of expression can be just as effective. A few well-chosen words, suitably framed, are all you need to get your point across. A slight verbal tick (e.g. brackets or random capitals) might help to suggest that you are slightly unhinged, but don’t go overboard.

Pick a distinctive logo. We are big fans of the red star. Some say it is over-used but we think it has an elegant timeless simplicity. It says “I’m a left-of-centre revolutionary” but without too many specifics (for this reason we advise against the hammer and sickle which lost its freshness long ago).

Spend some time picking a signature. You may wish to preserve some mystery around your identity. This may be necessary for security purposes, but it is also a useful way of implying that you are a movement rather than a lone nutter. We recommend this revolutionary name generator as a starting point. NB: It is essential that you check that your chosen name isn’t already in use – you wouldn’t want some young punk taking credit for your righteous actions.

Say it with a gift. Always accompany your letter with discreet gift that helps you to communicate your message. Make sure you comply with your own corporate gift policy and that of the recipient. As a rule, it is good to pick something inexpensive so as not require an entry in the gifts register. In your case, we recommend something punchy – like a bullet (not to be confused with bullet points, remember “powerpoint is evil”). Also: as with words, so with bullets. One is enough to make your point. This is not a Cretan wedding.

Image: Letter received yesterday by the Greek Deputy Finance Minister in charge of taxation, accompanied by a single bullet. The letter reads: “TRYFON ALEXIADIS, COLLECTOR OF THE WERMACHT… UNTIL THE HOUR <0> YOU WILL UNDERSTAND WHAT FEAR MEANS, YOU AND YOUR FAMILY MEMBERS… RED FACTION.” A similar letter, also accompanied by a bullet, was received last week by the Chair of the the advisory committee on pensions, the so-called “Committee of Wise Men”. Taxation and pension reform are two of the key areas where the government is pushing forward with further austerity policies as part of the latest bailout agreement.

Five steps to effective political communications

Punk’d again!

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We reveal the truth behind those oligarch texts.

During yesterday’s debate on the new media bill in the Greek Parliament, Defence Minister, leader of junior government coalition party ANEL (Independent Greeks) and weekend warrior Panos Kammenos read out the text messages presented in translation below, purporting to be from Dimitrios Giannakopoulos, scion of the family behind Greek pharmaceuticals company Vianex, and proprietor of Panathinaikos basketball team and internet “news” site newsbomb.gr. The texts were intended to demonstrate the political pressure the government was receiving from “wannabe oligarchs” in the media.

“Good morning. Will our man George get into Health as an extra-parliamentary appointment? Please make sure they don’t reappoint [Deputy Minister for Sport] Kontonis anywhere.”

“Congratulations. I hope this time you make it a full four years without any obstacles and can fix all the atrocities of the last forty years. Good strength. Newsbomb elects a government”

“Good morning. George should be appointed as an extra-parliamentary. Do not let Kontonis be appointed.”

“Kontonis not only did nothing, he won’t even give us an appointment.”

“If I don’t topple you by Christmas, my name isn’t Giannakopoulos.”


We are now able to bring you the background to this exchange. Exclusive to Dateline: Atlantis.

Monday 21st September, 6:30 am, the morning after the Syriza/ANEL re-election:

Alexis Tsipras, PM (AT): Malaka, malaka*, check this out!

Nikos Pappas, Minister of State (NP): What’s up man, I’m hungover…

AT: I know, you were out with fatty, right?

NP: Malaka, it was unreal. He insisted on opening the place up and doing the whole thing with the flowers and the plates and sh*t. You know I hate that stupid skyladiko stuff but I couldn’t say no. I took one for the team, malaka, remember that.

AT: I know, malaka, I appreciate it… You know how Betty is about me staying out late.

NP: You are so pussy-whipped, man… Anyway, wazzup?

AT: Listen, malaka, you’re gonna love this. We’re gonna get back at fatty. Remember when we sent him that spoof with the kids’ essays on politics?

NP: Yeah… The idiot only went and read it out on live TV, like it was for real…

AT: I know, right?! I only sent it as a joke, as in, “check this joke out, from a clearly satirical site, isn’t it funny?” Who would have thought he’d take it seriously. And he was getting all wound up reading it out as well. It was unreal. Anyway, that gave me an idea.

NP: Go on…

AT: You know how he loves to puff out his chest and feel important right? And you know how he likes to hang out with all the oligarch douchebag kids, right? [snigger] No offence, mate, right? So, here’s what I’m going to text him…

[beep]

NP: Very funny. Hey, his wife gave my missus her number earlier. How about texting her too? That’ll really mess with him!

AT: I knew you’d love it! Keep it in the family. Just like the old days. Hook, line and sinker! Boom! Hey, malaka, double dare! If he mentions it, we have to get him to read it out in parliament. You know when, when you do the media bill!

NP: No fair, malaka. I won’t be able to keep a straight face!

AT: That’s ma boy. You know that’s going to be a slog, why not have some fun?! Malaka, take a couple of painkillers and see you at the office in a couple of hours! We got a country to run!

*For those unfamiliar with the Greek vernacular, lit., masturbator, but used habitually among friends as an affectionate interjection along the lines of “dude”, “man” or “mate”.

Stories, tweets and Facebook posts linked to or reproduced are genuine. Everything in between is a fabrication.

Image from spirospero.gr

Punk’d again!

I want my MTV… What does the media bill mean for me? 

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The draft media bill has been trailed as a game-changer for TV in Greece, but will it rock your TV world? We strap on our hazmat suit and wade through the crap and the hot air so you don’t have to.

This week the Greek parliament will be voting on a fast-tracked bill on the issuing of TV broadcast licenses. The new legislation has been a key element of the Syriza manifesto, which framed it firmly within its battle with “diaploki” (entanglement, corruption). To quote PM Alexis Tsipras back in May: “We are embattled by the oligarchs and the print and electronic media which foresee disaster for the country. The time has come for the oligarchs of Greece to put their hands in their pockets and pay for the frequencies that they hold for free, what they haven’t paid all these years. However much propaganda they produce, we will not change our position because the people are on our side.”

The people are on their side to a certain extent. Hardly anyone in Greece trusts the private media. In the 25 years of their existence, private TV channels have done their best to degrade standards and hone the nation’s appreciation for bling, celebrity and superficiality that arguably fuelled the bubble that we are now paying the bill for. Greece currently has the eight private TV channels that broadcast nationally , in addition to four state ERT channels and the Vouli (parliament) channel (this list is a little out of date). The existing licensing regime is governed by legislation dating back to 1995, which has never been comprehensively enforced, so that for example all private TV stations still operate on temporary licenses, making them fertile ground for political interference. Several of the channels are majority owned by large conglomerates, some of which also own newsapapers, bid for public works and hold large outstanding loans from Greek banks (there is a good academic summary of the regulatory and commercial background here,  in Greek). This arrangement is referred to as the “triangle of power” but is also described in less flattering terms, and these entities are the targets of the Syriza/ANEL sabre-rattling. The new bill is designed to reset the conditions for terrestrial broadcast licenses, and make private broadcasters apply for them afresh. It is likely to pass substantially unchanged, as MPs are expected to vote largely along party lines. But how will the new legislation address the ordinary viewer’s concerns?

Below I answer the burning questions, based on way too many hours of viewing of Greek TV (motivated mainly by morbid fascination), a reasonably educated interest in media regulation, and an insight into the economics of the media markets (the latter courtesy of our contributor koutofrangos).

Do the new rules mean I will have to do without innovative programming like… “My mamma can cook better than yours”? 

Fear not. Game shows, chat shows and studio-based reality TV are just about the cheapest programming you can make, and ideal for product placement. Greek formats like “My mamma” are even cheaper because, unlike shows like “The Voice” or “Your face sounds familiar”, they don’t require paying to license the format from a foreign company. With the Greek market in the state that it’s in, cheap TV is all that can be guaranteed.

Let me walk you through it. Private free-to-air TV is funded by advertising revenues (in some countries the state subsidises independent broadcasters , but not in Greece). Companies will only spend on advertising if they are in a reasonably healthy state themselves and have a realistic prospect of reaching a market that can purchase their products. Between 2007 and 2015 individual wealth in Greece shrunk by 40%. Net advertising revenues by TV stations halved between 2008 and 2012 and have not recovered since. Since the new legislation is still talking about commercial TV licenses, the same economics will apply, and this will be the determining factor of your viewing experience.

So whoever gets the new licenses, we can expect the same old rubbish but even cheaper.

Can we have Petroula back? 

Hope springs eternal for the return of the pneumatically-enhanced weather-girl-turned-roving-political-satirist-turned-discount-appliance-seller (Petroula stalking Dominique Strauss-Kahn on his IMF visits to Athens has to be one of the funniest and most prescient moments on Greek TV in recent years). The media regulator ΕΣΡ (National Council of Radio and TV) is such a lame duck that it only just finalised its decision to sanction Star TV for her suggestive weather reports this year, several years after she went off-air.

The new bill is specifically and narrowly about media ownership, not content. There is nothing in it to suggest that the regulator will be any more robust, independent or well resourced, leaving wide open the possibility that Petroula and her spiritual sisters could find a place again in the brave new media landscape, and in the nation’s hearts.

Will I have to do without shouty news and “windows”? 

Don’t be silly. After game shows, chat shows and reality shows, rolling news is the next cheapest way to fill airtime (only marginally less cheap because it would be too conspicuous to present the news with a big carton of cream on the desk). Greek news programmes resemble “Celebrity Squares” in their attempt to squeeze in as many talking heads in the “windows” (παράθυρα, paráthyra). Politicians endorse this as a public service, because they get to posture endlessly, away from the niceties of parliamentary procedure or the accountability of governing. Moreover, you can’t count on TV news progammes for information: a recent study showed that 4/5 of Greek news bulletins failed to distinguish news from editorial content, and 2/3 lacked investigative content (the dead tree media came off only slightly better, scoring 2/3 and 3/5 respectively), while they have been known to suppress negative news  relating to their busiess interests.

Take this endorsement from a leading mental health professional: I advise people to refrain from watching TV. Greek television isn’t exactly dominated by dialogue and information, it’s full of people who just scream at each other. By all accounts, Greek TV will continue to perform the same role as “guardian” of the nation’s mental health in the years to come.

Will the new law mean the end of infomercial magic? 

Of course not. Telesales is the only kind of programming that pays its own way. So you can continue to enjoy the educational benefits of your favourite more-or-less-thinly-disguised racist conspiracy peddlers, not just those who now sit in parliament. You may even be able to enjoy them on more mainstream channels, since it is hard to see how else they will fill their airtime.

I am the kind of shallow person who enjoys a well-made commercial. Will I get to see some real ads again? 

Unlikely.

In the bubble years, you would have trouble finding any programming in amongst the endless advertising “breaks” on both public and private TV stations. Nowadays, programmes run promptly and ad breaks on the private TV stations are dominated by a small set of players: banks, telecoms, big domestic food companies (a surreal parade of dairy, processed meat, and ironically these days, a certain German-owned supermarket chain). It is sometimes insinuated that companies which have financial ties to the TV stations (e.g. as their creditors) may not be paying cash to advertise. There is some incidental support for this hypothesis. In the same prime time slots you can also find extended infomercials for mail order firms selling “pretty bras”, “clever hose” and cheap costume jewellery, or pawnbrokers – it’s like a giant flashing neon sign that reads “advertising time is dirt cheap”. Meanwhile, the public service stations screen wall-to-wall embarrassingly bad public service announcements.

So, no. No one is willing to pay real money to seduce you into buying stuff you can’t afford.

Will I get public service TV like the BBC? 

If you have led such a sheltered enough existence as to think that ERT was ever anything like the BBC (even in the latter’s degraded present state) then yes, you will get public service TV “like the BBC”. However, if you expect your public service TV to serve you, the public, and not the government of the day, you will be disappointed. And if you expect it to educate, then I refer you to the next question.

But there is good news: you won’t get Fox News or Mediaset either. The Greek market is no prize for global TV companies and the Greek language audience segment globally is way too insignificant (commercially or politically) to justify their involvement.  So you’re safe from the polluting influences of a Murdoch or a Berlusconi, or any beast big enough to swing an election single-handedly. Though you might get a friendly second-tier Russian oligarch looking to boost his profile.

Speaking of kingmakers, though, the bill does grant one government minister the power to set the number of TV broadcast licenses and the starting price for the license auction.

Documentaries? Nature programmes? Cultural events? 

Don’t be silly. The bill pays lip service to the constitutional aims of “ensuring pluralism, objective and equitable transmission of information and news, reinforcing the social mission of television and supporting the cultural development of the nation, but there is nothing contained within that gives a clue how these noble goals will be achieved. This is first and foremost a bill on media ownership, which only requires a minimal 10 hours of “cultural” programming per month as part of the license condition.

More importantly, these things cost money to make and money to license from abroad. You might stumble on a gem of a documentary from the ERT archive or a seminal Russian art film buried on the Vouli channel, but even they get a bit old after the fifth showing… No, I refer you back to my first answer.

Sport?  

Oh stop it. You’re talking big money now.

In fact, in its previous term the Syriza/ANEL government removed the requirement for sports events of national importance to be broadcast on free-to-air TV, with the result that the Greek Football Cup final was only shown on a subscription channel.

In case you haven’t got the message yet, this isn’t about you, dear viewer, it’s about the politicians, their business friends, and their turf.

I do care about where my news comes from. Will this be the end of the oligarchic media? 

Unlikely.

The bill does specify conflicts of interest that would exclude certain potential bidders, though these are limited to TV research firms and advertising companies. It does not attempt to re-open the issue of conflict with ownership of state contractors, or the issue of borrowing from banks with links to the state; this harks back to the so-called “basic shareholder” affair (βασικός μέτοχος), when previous governments’ attempts to legislate on this front were controversially rebuffed by Brussels as incompatible with European law. Absent, too, is any restriction on cross-media ownership (where the same owner can have stakes in TV, radio and newspapers), a provision that was removed from the law by a previous government, and no-one seems willing to reinstate. So the “triangle of power” remains intact.

The bill mandates the disclosure of all shareholders down to the 1% holding level – however, the draft being debated includes a number of exemptions from reporting, e.g. companies listed in an OECD member jurisdiction, and lax reporting requirements around beneficial ownership, which open loopholes large enough for a luxury coachload of oligarchs, their lawyers and accountants.

There are the obvious prohibitions on individuals with criminal records etc., and there are minimum solvency and capitalisation requirements, which are presumably intended to exclude existing license holders who have racked up massive debts (see below). Again, anyone with a half-decent legal/accounting team would not find it hard to organise some kind of restructuring to meet the letter of the law.

Let’s assume all the existing license holders are excluded or choose not to take part in the bidding process. Who is likely to bid for a license? Applicants will need to meet two criteria: (a) have money or access to money (€2-8 million to capitalise the company, plus the minimum facilities that the bill also mandates, plus whatever the license ends up costing), and (b) not care much about making money from their broadcast activity (the old adage that “you can make a small fortune in this business only if you start with a large one” seems to apply here as much as it does in football). The economics of the Greek TV market are marginal at best. Take away the cheap money, lax lending practices and regulatory laissez-faire that have allowed the existing private TV stations to survive this long, raise the barriers to entry, and the legitimate commercial proposition is even weaker than it ever was.

Only political operators and vanity broadcasters need apply. Regional and municipal stations, even solvent ones, are positively put off by some of the provisions. Muck-rakers have already started compiling a roster of likely bidders for the new licenses, and it’s hard to get excited about their probity, public-spiritedness, and lack of “oligarchic”  credentials.

As an aside, it is unlikely that on purely commercial terms the new licenses will raise more than pocket money for the public purse.

And what will happen to the pimps who control the media now? Will the TV stations pay their debts? 

All the current private license holders owe large sums of money to the Greek banks, totalling close to €1 billion by a recent estimate, in the form of business loans.  These numbers have been repeated frequently in the run-up to the vote, but the bill does not address them directly. Now, if the indebted TV companies wanted to bid for a license in their current form they may have to do their bit to relieve the banks’ balance sheet of any loans that they aren’t servicing (loans that are not “red”, however large, remain irrelevant). But would they want to? It would not be the first time when a media company goes bust only to resurface in a new form scot free, leaving a trail of unpaid bills. That is more to do with problematic bankruptcy provisions than with media regulation.

However, the “old media” only need trouble themselves with this if they insist on bidding for a terrestrial digital license, which is the only type covered by the bill. In this day and age, though, terrestrial TV is pretty old hat, and there are plenty of other ways to reach an audience without being beholden to the government, paying special taxes, hiring unionised journalists, or having to respect any rules on content. There is a growing market for subscription-based satellite TV, some of the “old media” interests have already migrated online, while many of the newer media outlets have forged a path entirely on the internet. In one scenario, then, we could end up with a “new systemic” regulated media domain, alongside an unregulated shadow media space, with no guarantee of quality or trustworthiness in either.

However, we have previously aired a cynical view of all the political noise surrounding the fight against diaploki and what the endgame might be. This would imply a much less radical outcome. In brief, if the old “pimps” resurface, we will have to assume that some kind of settlement has been reached.

Will I finally get my dream job in the media? 

Now we’re talking!  The bill does set the minimum number of employees (between 50 and 400) required for each type of license-holder, throwing a bone to anyone concerned about the inevitable job losses (not enough of a bone as it turns out; the main journalists’ union has gone on strike, leaving no-one to report on the honeymoon of our latest private island dweller, or indeed President Hollande’s state visit).

Your dream job might be as a cleaner or a security guard, which would be the most cost-effective way to meet the quota.

Will I finally get good news?  

I see your sense of humour is intact. This is a media bill, not a magic lantern.

Oh, isn’t that your bill for the ENFIA, the property tax that was supposed to be abolished? Better get to that. Happy viewing!

Now read “I want my MTV… the sequel”.

Image: Vintage  TV ad from imgarcade.com

I want my MTV… What does the media bill mean for me? 

Trouble on the production line

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Greece is still managing to gain some revenue from its exports. Many of these are its natural products, lovingly cultivated and harvested by generations of Greek families according to traditional methods, and gaining well-deserved appreciation outside its borders. Many such products continue to provide income for the families and for the country. Notable examples are its olive oil, and two of its more exclusive items, mastic from the island of Chios and saffron from the crocus fields of Kozani.

At various points in its history, Greece has been renowned for its export of another natural product, also lovingly cultivated, fitting the description in the opening paragraph, namely its youth. The current crisis has resulted in an upsurge in the exodus of young men and women, many highly educated at great expense to the country and their families (calculated by the OECD at $23,701 per high school graduate, $37,429 per university graduate). It has been estimated that in the last 5 years well over 130,000 Greeks with university degrees have left Greece to work in other countries, and many others have failed to return home after studying abroad for a higher degree. Their talent is exploited, and their taxes are collected by their adoptive countries, and all Greece gains is an occasional accolade as a Greek scientist working abroad receives an award. This trend is likely to continue, but for how long can Greece keep up its production of this sought-after commodity to a sufficient standard?

Primary schooling starts at age six, provided by the state. Traditionally very young children in Greece were brought up at home with a large extended family ensuring that they acquired the skills needed to succeed and prosper. Even when young Greek women started working outside the home there was always a Yiayia, a grandmother, to take over. Then, with the passage of another generation, Yiayia was working, too, or was not geographically available as the wave of internal migration to the cities continued. Alternative forms of child-care had to be found, including baby-minders (native or “xenes” – how many foreign wives in Greece came originally to look after the children of Greek families?) and the “βρεφονηπιακός σταθμός” and the “παιδικός σταθμός” (vrefonipiakós stathmós and paidikós stathmós – literally “infant and child station”, respectively – nursery school), followed by νηπιαγωγείο (nipiagogío, kindergarten). In the beginning these were mostly privately run, although the larger cities had facilities for the children of civil servants, and some of the banks provided similar services for their employees. Eventually the demand was so great that the municipalities started subsidized preschool care, but with specific entry criteria. Kindergarten became part of the compulsory education for children between five and six in 2006.

All well and good – our budding scientists are headed on their course. The private sector burgeoned to cover the families not eligible for municipal childcare, or wanting something a little more imaginative for their children. The hours of state primary school often did not coincide with Mama’s work schedule, so a private school providing transport and additional “study time” was sometimes a necessity. And looking ahead, many parents started sending their children to language schools (frontistíria) in the afternoon, or arranging private tuition at home. A fragile balance seemed to have been forged, which ensured a steady stream of children to enter the next stage towards the “finished product” – high school – but that is another story.

Then The Wall came down and people from neighbouring countries were able to come to Greece looking for work and bringing their families. The Greek bubble economy of the turn of the century eventually attracted settlers from farther afield too. Their children, many born in Greece, changed the traditional nearly-all-Greek population of the schools and challenged the teachers who were not well equipped for a multi-cultural environment. The educational budget was being stretched. The private sector flourished further.

Come the crisis, and things really began to fall apart. Parents became unemployed. Mothers now find themselves in a Catch-22 situation where to enrol their children in the municipal preschool they need a letter from their employer, while to go looking for a job they need their children to be in preschool. Families whose earnings exceed a certain limit are excluded from municipal nursery schools, so have to spend a substantial proportion of those earnings on a private alternative. Or press Yiayia back into service.

Meanwhile the municipal facilities are in trouble. They are bankrolled largely out of European funds, but the austerity measures have entailed a pruning down of employees, including nursery nurses, preschool teachers, cleaning and security staff. The state kindergartens and primary schools find themselves in a similar situation, and the school year opened in September 2015 with no teachers at all in some kindergartens and schools, too few in others, and no special education specialists.

At the same time the possibility of a 23% VAT on private education brought the threat of transfer of thousands of children from private schools to a state system unable to cope with its present numbers. The government has now been forced to rescind the tax on preschool facilities and to reduce the VAT on other private educational establishments, to, for example, 6% for language schools and 13% for primary schools. So things do not look quite so bad (in a classic application of prospect theory we are so relieved to see our potential loss reduced that we treat it as a gain).

But we are not out of the woods yet. We must never discount the inevitable teachers’ strikes that will close down the whole system for days at a time throwing every family’s carefully juggled schoolday programme into disarray and playing havoc with the learning curve of the young brains.

It appears that the outlook for the continued successful cultivation of our prime national product is not sunny.

Image: Illustration from Greek primary school textbook c.1980.

Trouble on the production line

Slow burn: the everyday politics of cremation in Greece

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Recently we have been talking a lot about taxes: tax increases, tax fairness, tax evasion. Today for a change we have some good news about the other inevitability: death, or rather, your options after death in Greece.

At present, your after-death options in Greece are very limited. Basically, it’s burial or burial. The majority of Greeks are Orthodox Christians (as many as 98% though there are no official government statistics), and Orthodox Christianity is the country’s constitutionally guaranteed “prevailing” religion, meaning that its clergy are paid as civil servants, its institutions pay little tax relative to size of their estates (though the Church denies that it has preferential status), and Orthodox religious education is compulsory through primary and secondary school. By extension, the Church of Greece has de facto cornered the market in funerary ritual and disposal of the dead. What this means in practical terms is that the standard route out of this world is an Orthodox funeral and burial, followed by interment in a church cemetery, usually in a rented plot (perpetual plots do exist but they cost more than most houses). The standard rental period is three years, after which the remains are disinterred with considerably less ceremony than they were buried, and moved to a more compact stackable ossuary. If you are a Muslim, you can be buried in a limited number of dedicated cemeteries in northern Greece. If you belong to another religion, or are non-religious, or a slightly less dogmatic Orthodox Christian (for example, if you respect the Deity but distrust His earthly middlemen as many Greeks traditionally do), you’re on your own.

Greece is perhaps the only country in Europe that doesn’t offer the option of cremation of the dead, but over the last few years it has been edging slowly closer to making it a reality. To this day, there is no licensed crematorium in Greek territory even though campaigning started in 1987 and cremation was made legal in 2006 for those whose religion permits it. The Orthodox Church’s position, reiterated in a recent encyclical, is that since cremation is not part of its tradition, it does not sanction it; therefore priests are not allowed to perform a funeral service or a memorial for someone who is about to be cremated, though at the discretion of the local bishop a simple blessing might be arranged.

However it now seems that the final hurdle is being lifted that will allow the first crematoria to be licensed in Greece. Progress has been slow. In 2010, legislation was enacted setting out the planning conditions for operating a crematorium; however one of the conditions was that should be attached to a cemetery, which of course put it on church turf, both literally and metaphorically. In 2014, the condition linking crematoria to cemeteries was lifted, but restrictions remain which limit their operation to municipal bodies only. The mayors of Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, united by their progressive views but also facing the shared challenge of land scarcity in the most densely populated parts of the country, have been very outspoken in confronting the Church’s objections to establishing crematoria in their constituencies, and have been lobbying for gaps to be filled in the legislation. An amendment signed last week by the Environment Minister is now said to complete the licensing regime.

Meanwhile, this being Greece, we have found ways around the system, thanks to the availability of facilities in the neighbouring countries of the former Communist block, where state atheism ensured their development. Here’s how it works. Most funeral parlours, euphemistically known as “Ceremony Offices” (Γραφεία Τελετών) in Greek (I challenge you to find any that look like they do wedding planning, although some do have a flair for self-promotion) offer a cremation service. The closest and most popular destination is Bulgaria, where the office will arrange to transport the body, take care of the paperwork repatriate the ashes for prices starting around €1,900 (our local office recently quoted €2,500 for a dignified service: “we take them in a proper hearse, some of our competitors will just load them into a van”). It all has he makings of a great Balkan road movie (Valkanizater meets Little Miss Sunshine meets Due Date, perhaps?). Our own family itinerary specifies an additional orienteering challenge to disperse the ashes (Code name: Five Rivers).

If you want hedge your bets with your Orthodox Maker, the funeral organiser will also offer advice on how to handle the clerics so as to get a funeral. They line they favour is that “the deceased wished to be buried in his/her horió (χωριό, ancestral village)”; this ensures that after a “proper” funeral, the body is released, no questions asked. The moral acrobatics of lying to a priest in order to secure a Christian funeral does not appear to be a strong deterrent, and is in keeping with the general casualness of the relationship that most modern Greeks have with a religion that appears on the face of it so dominant and all-pervasive (Catholic friends both marvel at the pomposity of the ritual which is always performed in an archaic language by men who always wear frocks, and envy our relative freedom from guilt and the dread of eternal damnation). According to a recent report, the extra cost of a cremation has done nothing to dampen its popularity, even during the crisis. The owner of one funeral parlour was quoted saying that people are choosing to forgo the cost of a funeral service instead.

The economics of the final journey aside, there is growing impatience among ordinary Greeks with the institution of the Church. The financial crisis has been focusing attention on the Church’s own financial status, and particularly the lack of transparency around its relationship to the state and its involvement in major political scandals. A recent survey showed that 53% of Greeks favour the separation of Church and state, even though 82% do not believe that the Church would survive the separation financially (implying that they in fact believe it to be dependent on public finances). This, despite the prominent role the Church has taken during the crisis, in being seen to provide a social safety net of last resort through initiatives like soup kitchens in deprived areas.

The Church’s public charitable activities and financial clout may account for the fact that the Syriza/ANEL government has conceded on a number of fronts where it was expected to take a strong stance, including the continuation of compulsory religious education. Critics have also been quick to note the preferential treatment accorded to the Church under the continuing capital controls regime, and the recent ministerial decision to hire more priests ahead of badly needed schoolteachers. True, one partner in the coalition finds it hard to resist the opportunity to schmooze a bishop or kiss an icon; but even many political conservatives still harbour the hope that a left-wing government will do the dirty work of prising some areas of life out of the hands of the Church and into the modern age.

Ideally in this life as well.

Image: FIRE!! by Thomas’s Pics licensed under BY CC 2.0

Slow burn: the everyday politics of cremation in Greece

Sodom, Gomorrah, Armageddon, all in Greece

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Greek archaeologists have disputed a recent claim that the biblical city of Sodom has been discovered at Tall el Hammam in Jordan. They claim that Sodom, its sister city Gomorrah and other key biblical sites are in fact located in the territory of modern Greece. In the Book of Genesis, Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone because of the sin they harboured. An attempt by Abraham to intercede on the basis that he could find 50 (no 45, no 40, how about 30, no 20, OK just 10) righteous people to save the cities failed miserably. The cities’ names have since become bywords for vice and particularly homosexuality.

It is thought that the Greek archaeological establishment’s eagerness to lay claim to these historic sites is linked to a recent initiative to diversify Greece’s tourism offering by attracting more visitors from the LGBT community, starting in the northern city of Thessaloniki. This initiative gained initial support from the recent interpretation of the excavation finds at Amphipolis, as a monument to the biggest bromance of all time. However, disputes over this interpretation have led tourism chiefs to look elsewhere for relevant heritage sites. They have also poured scorn on the recent association of Gomorrah with Naples in southern Italy, pointing to the biblical description of the cities as lying in a well-watered and land, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden, and suitable for grazing livestock. They believe that this places Sodom and Gomorrah in the vicinity of the picturesque towns of Thiva (modern Thebes) and Livadeia in Boeotia, which already attract scores of visitors on account of their visionary town planning.

Cynical observers have linked the recent interest in LGBT heritage to the Greek government’s stated intention to increase the state’s revenue from tourism. This includes the introduction of electronic ticketing and a significant increase in ticket prices for museums and archaeological sites. The Culture Ministry hopes that the increase in revenues from museum tickets will enable the government to lift the recently imposed VAT on private education, a measure which has provoked outrage among voters. However, it has been pointed out that the numbers don’t add up: current annual revenues from archaeological sites are in the region of €60 million, compared to the €400 million anticipated revenue from applying 23% VAT to private school fees.

Attracting tourism under the rainbow flag has historically met with vehement resistance from the Greek Orthodox Church, a powerful influence in all areas of life in Greece. For example, Thessaloniki’s Gay Pride parade is greeted by annual protestations from the local bishop, objecting to the “unpleasant, unacceptable and condemnable presence of homosexuals,” and calling on citizens to protect their children against “unholy and unnatural festivals.” Close observers of Greek politics have speculated that a strategy of “bringing the church onside” may be behind the recent softening in the Syriza-led government’s attitude towards the Church. While ostensibly staunch defenders of secularism, left-leaning Syriza ministers have recently made concessions to church leaders, by allowing the continuation of compulsory religious education in schools, and granting the Church of Greece significant easements under the ongoing capital controls regime.

A spokesman from the Culture Ministry who wished to remain anonymous also trailed plans to capitalise on the newly-established biblical links to drive an increase in Bible tourism. He noted that in addition to Sodom and Gomorrah, researchers were also confident in locating the biblical Armageddon in modern Greece, possibly under the modern site of the Employment and Pensions Ministry. This would challenge the long-held interpretation linking the biblical battle site to Tel Megiddo in northern Israel, while apocalyptic readings impute an entirely different meaning to Armageddon.

Image: “The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” by Pieter Schoubroek (circa 1570-1607).

Sodom, Gomorrah, Armageddon, all in Greece